The Cohabitation Complication
The key to making marriage work—and what sets it apart from cohabitation—is commitment.
In the past few years, a big revolution in marriage and relationships has occurred. Consider this, according to the U.S. Census Bureau:
In 1960 about 440,000 couples of the opposite sex were living together outside of marriage.
By 2000 that number had grown to just over 3.8 million couples.
And just 14 years later, the number of couples had more than doubled to just under 8 million!
For a growing number of couples, especially younger ones, cohabitation is like a beta test marriage—a trial run to see whether they can make it work as husband and wife. As one woman wrote in Psychology Today, “I couldn’t imagine getting hitched to anyone I hadn’t taken on a test-spin as a roommate. Conjoin with someone before sharing a bathroom? Not likely!”
The dramatic rise in cohabitation can be traced to several factors, including:
- lenient modern attitudes about sex,
- lack of stigma regarding out-of-wedlock childbearing,
- young adults waiting longer to get married (the median age for first-time marriage is about 29 for men and 27 for women—up from 23 and 20 in 1960),
- a growing number of people in our culture don’t see marriage as important, and
- the fear of failure—many singles don’t want to end up divorced like their parents.
Many couples believe it makes sense to live together so they can determine if their relationship will last before making the commitment of marriage. In the popular media, living together is the normal type of pre-marriage relationship portrayed in countless movies and television shows. Sometimes it seems that the only couples who don’t live together before marriage are those in shows on the Hallmark Channel.
Does cohabitation work as a trial run?
For followers of Christ, living together before marriage should not be a biblical option just from the standpoint of sexual purity alone; God’s Word is very clear about waiting until marriage to enjoy the sexual union.
But let’s also address the question of cohabitation as a trial run for marriage: Does living together really help you see if you are compatible?
While many couples believe that cohabitation simulates a marriage relationship, many researchers and counselors point out that it’s actually a false copy of the real thing. In a letter to a couple living together, Dr. Willard Harley writes,
… I suggest that you consider why couples who live together don’t marry. Ask yourself that very question. Why did you choose to live with your boyfriend instead of marrying him?
The answer is that you were not ready to make that commitment to him yet. First, you wanted to see if you still loved him after you cooked meals together, cleaned the apartment together, and slept together. In other words, you wanted to see what married life would be like without the commitment of marriage.
But what you don’t seem to realize is that you will never know what married life is like unless you’re married. The commitment of marriage adds a dimension to your relationship that puts everything on its ear. Right now, you are testing each other to see if you are compatible. If either of you slips up, the test is over, and you are out the door. Marriage doesn’t work that way. Slip-ups don’t end the marriage [in your case], they just end the love you have for each other.
What, exactly, is the commitment of marriage? It is an agreement that you will take care of each other for life, regardless of life’s ups and downs. You will stick it out together through thick and thin. But the commitment of living together isn’t like that at all. It is simply a month-to-month rental agreement.
In other words, living together cannot work as a trial run before making the commitment of marriage, because that commitment is what sets marriage apart from every other relationship. It changes everything.
Another problem with living together is what researchers call “relationship inertia.” Couples grow accustomed to living together, and they decide to get married because that seems like what they should do next. They may give in to pressure from parents, or they may feel they “owe each other” after investing so much of their lives in the relationship. As Dr. Scott Stanley, a professor of family and marital studies at the University of Denver, says, “People who are cohabiting might end up marrying somebody they might not otherwise have married.” In his words, they are “sliding, not deciding.”
God’s Word (Genesis 2:18-25) not only establishes blueprints for marriage, but it also reveals a progression for building a relationship:
- Man is alone.
- He recognizes his need for a helpmate.
- God provides for this need.
- Man receives that provision.
- Both man and woman leave father and mother.
- They cleave to one another.
- They become one flesh.
- They experience intimacy and oneness.
In God’s plan, when a man and woman become one flesh, they’ve already committed their lives to each other as a response to God’s provision. Sexual relations and cohabitation before marriage short-circuit this plan.
That’s not just God’s plan. That’s the most current research. Here’s the assessment—and recommendation—from Scott Stanley:
If you want to marry, be careful about cohabitation. Sure, more and more people are cohabiting, but it’s also less likely than ever to lead to marriage. In fact, people are increasingly cohabiting in ways that are associated with greater risks to the aspiration of marital success. If you are aiming for marriage, aim for a solid choice in a partner and then look to form a public, mutual promise to marry. While all couples may be more likely to break up before marriage now than in the past, look toward something that really signals commitment to figure out whether you and a partner have what it takes to go the distance.
So in the end, the decisions a couple makes before they are married reveal much about what a couple believes. Are they willing to believe what God’s Word says about building the type of relationship that will last a lifetime? Are they willing to believe in His plan for marriage? Are they willing to follow Him and believe He knows what is best for them?
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